Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Regarding Risk and Reward

As the Indians’ off-season rolls on quietly (relatively speaking), the biggest news that has come out of the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is not this stockpiling of RH bats in minor trades (Aaron Cunningham) or NRI (Pie and Lopez with Andy LaRoche perhaps to come) to fill out organizational depth and equate to Travis Buck-esque lottery tickets. Rather, the biggest events of the last couple of weeks pertaining to the Indians have been the signings of Josh Willingham by the Twins and Michael Cuddyer by the Rockies as those two bats seemed to be the ones that most clearly fit the mold (RH LF or RH LF/1B) that the Indians were purportedly targeting this off-season.

So while the hand-wringing has begun over the Felix Pie and Jose Lopez minor league deals and the already-apparent warts of Aaron Cunningham are being put under a microscope, the very real sense is creeping in that the Indians are making plans to begin the 2012 season with the roster essentially as it stands right now. Certainly, a trade could be in the offing (remember, the DeRosa deal was done on New Year’s Eve) and perhaps Antonetti has a trick still up his sleeve, but with Willingham off to the Twin Cities and Cuddyer headed to the thin mountain air, the idea that the Indians will appreciably upgrade this team via FA as essentially vanished.

Now this shouldn’t come as a major surprise as (despite the beat reporters’ INSISTENCE on constantly focusing on the FA market) any major offensive Indians’ addition was (and still is) always likely to come via the trade route. But since the Indians were allegedly in on Willingham and since Cuddyer and Willingham are similarly skilled, similarly aged players that just found their way to destinations other than Cleveland, let’s take a look at the deals that they got, the Indians’ apparent reticence to assume the risk associated with these “long”-term deals, and what it means for 2012.

Starting with Cuddyer and Willingham inking their new deals, they’re both interesting guys as they represent very clearly the inefficiency of augmenting a team via FA with mid-tier players. Both are solid hitters, if flawed players, who would immediately upgrade nearly any team they would have joined (the Indians certainly included) who hit the FA at nearly the exact same age. For their services, the Rockies doled out a 3-year deal worth $31.5M for Cuddyer and the Twins essentially replaced Cuddyer with Willingham, handing out a 3-year, $21M deal for Willingham.

What I find intriguing about the two deals (particularly the Willingham deal for less money) is the idea that both netted 3-year deals, particularly because the Indians were apparently only willing to offer Willingham a 2-year deal, using the convenient excuse of Willingham’s defensive limitations to explain why they weren’t willing to top (or match) the Twins’ offer. The reason that Willingham represented such a compelling option is that he’s been strikingly consistent throughout his career, posting an OBP between .332 and .389 every year, a SLG between .459 and .496 every year for the last six years. Over his career, he’s played in nearly 800 games and he has a .836 OPS and a 121 OPS+. Among players with more than 2,500 PA over the last six years, those numbers put Willingham 38th in OPS+, just below Jayson Werth and above Billy Butler.

Essentially, Willingham has been a good (though not great), consistent hitter throughout his career, even if there are red flags that exist. In terms of those red flags, Willingham had the highest K rate of his career (26.6% this past year) while posting the lowest BB rate (9.9% in 2011) since his rookie year. While those numbers aren’t astonishingly different than what he had done prior to 2011, it is worth noting that his lowest K rate came in 2010, which is the same year he had his 2nd highest BB rate. For a little perspective on that 26.6% K rate in 2011, it was just a tick below what Austin Kearns put forth (27.6% K rate) as an Indian, even if that’s just taking one aspect of hitting and ignoring the rest…with Willingham vastly outpacing the production of some of the Indians’ more notable windmills last year. Maybe that is overanalyzing things a little, but Willingham did have the 7th highest K rate in 2011 among qualified hitters and the fear would be if he’s trending in that direction, given his uptick in strikeouts in 2011.

And these “upticks” and possible “trends” is where some suspicion and doubt starts to creep in, given Willingham’s age and what similar players to Willingham (and Cuddyer) have done through their low-to-mid-30s. For that we go to a mind-blowing snippet put together by Matthew Pouliat at Hardball Talk comparing Cuddyer to similarly-aged players who had posted similar numbers in their age 30-32 seasons, concluding that “Occasionally you’ll get a (Matt) Stairs, but the players here most similar to Cuddyer — (Dante) Bichette, (Ron) Gant and (Kevin) Millar — all turned into borderline regulars at 33-34.” Certainly, this is not the most scientific or exhaustive look at how players age (and Pouliat completely ripped the Cuddyer signing from the start with a piece actually titled “Rockies pick a foolish way to break the bank”), but it is worth noting again that Willingham and Cuddyer are similarly skilled and similarly aged (Cuddyer is one month older), so it comes down to the question of what can legitimately be expected for either player and whether that expected (not past) production justifies the money and years involved…with Matt Stairs being a sort of best-case-scenario.

For teams like the Indians (and actually for most teams), these guys have to be paid for future production, not what they’ve already accomplished and if we move away from what Pouliat thinks can be expected from Cuddyer (and that wasn’t pretty) and move to Willingham, here’s what Rob Neyer had to say on Willingham’s deal with Minnesota:
Of course, Willingham is almost 33 years old and it’s quite possible that we’ve seen his best. I would love to have him for one season, and I would like to have him for two. Three ... well, that might be a season too far.
Or it might not be. If he’s healthy and keeps pulling the ball, he could certainly be worth $21 million over three seasons. Probably will be, now that I think about it.

“If he’s healthy and keeps pulling the ball” is the qualifier there as Willingham has never played more than 144 games in a season and has two seasons in his last six in which he played fewer than 115 games. Perhaps that scares the Indians in terms of the fact that they already have an injury risk in his mid-to-late-30’s (which is weird to write because these guys are my age) in Hafner that’s making hefty money and have plenty of other injury risks up and down the lineup to the point that Willingham’s injury history played a role.

However, the 3-year, $21M deal for the Twins feels like less of a “gamble” than most and looked palatable for the Tribe, particularly with Hafner coming off of the books after this season. Maybe Willingham still would have constituted a “gamble” nonetheless as he’s not the perfect player…but the “perfect player” just signed a 10-year, $275M deal to take his talents to…well, you get the idea.

As I wrote in the off-season “road-map” piece (the one where I put forth the idea that the Indians should sign Cuddyer to a 3-year deal) at the end of the season, “in this Brave New World of MLB, the Indians aren’t going to sit at the table with the Fielder and Pujols to crunch numbers if they’re going to venture out on the FA market and that ‘second-tier’ of players is the top-end of where they realistically get to choose.” That “second-tier” of players on the FA market has and always will be comprised of players like Willingham and Cuddyer – far from sure things that are going to be overpaid by someone in terms of years or dollars (or both) – who represent an imperfect upgrade to a team like the Indians. Though that upgrade may be “imperfect”, the upgrade would still have been significant, given the internal options…which I’ll get to.

Given that adding a Willingham would have unquestionably upgraded the roster and deepened the lineup while removing a marginal player from the everyday conversation, wouldn’t now seem like the time to assume some of the risk of a 3-year deal associated with signing a Willingham?

That is to say, if this is the “window” of contention that was so clearly opened by the Ubaldo trade (and it was), why not add the extra year?

Allegedly, the Indians went out to 2 years with Willingham but stopped short of adding that 3rd year…but was it really just because he wasn’t a defensive fit? The guy could play LF and provide insurance against the Sizemore/Hafner injury that we know is coming and upgraded the lineup for 2012…so why is it that the 3rd year was the dealbreaker?

This stated reticence to include a 3rd year piqued my interest and, while age obviously plays a role here, if we go back to that Pouliat piece that he did on Cuddyer’s “peers” and what they accomplished as Willingham is a month older than Cuddyer, there is decent data that Willingham’s production is going to tail off as he ages, meaning that the Indians would be paying “market value” for the first couple of years of the deal while likely ruing that 3rd year…when that 3rd year arrived.

But this idea of “market value” and the Twins’ inclusion of the 3rd year in the offer intrigued me as it certainly seems that these concessions/risks are what it takes in terms of signing players (even mid-level ones) on the FA market. That is to say that to get a player that is likely to present a significant upgrade (be it a position player or pitcher) is going to be costly on the FA market, with the new team essentially overpaying in terms of dollars or years (or both) to gain the services of the signed player.
With the assumed risk comes the possibility of reward…

This is far from ground-breaking stuff, I know…but (just to keep this with FA position players and, more specifically, OF) want to look at the big FA signings that covered 3 years or more among OF over the last four years?
Carl Crawford – 7 years, $142,000,000
Jayson Werth – 7 years, $126,000,000

Matt Holliday – 7 years, $120,000,000
Jason Bay – 4 years, $66,000,000
Marlon Byrd – 3 years, $15,000,000

Raul Ibanez – 3 years, $31,500,000
Milton Bradley – 3 years, $30,000,000
Juan Rivera – 3 years, $12,750,000

Torii Hunter – 5 years, $90,000,000
Aaron Rowand – 5 years, $60,000,000
Jose Guillen – 3 years, $36,000,000

That’s it…there have been three or fewer OF that have inked deals longer that were 3 years or longer each year in the four years prior to this off-season and not even going back to the absolute abomination that the 2006 list was, which of those deals look good in hindsight?

Holliday (though he hasn’t even played out ½ of that deal) and maybe Hunter or perhaps Ibanez for the first 2 years of that deal, but…oof.
Crawford, Werth, and Bay have been complete disappointments with their new teams to date and Bradley, Rowand, Rivera, and Guillen couldn’t have worn out their welcome any quicker if they tried and it’s possible that Byrd becomes available in this, his final year of his deal (particularly with David DeJesus on the North Side), bringing into clearer focus of how these guys generally don’t justify the length of their deals.

Maybe there’s the rub with these FA deals as the idea is to (quite obviously) pay for future production and not past accomplishments, but even among the OF deemed to be most deserving of long-term deals in the past few years, their “future production” paled in comparison to their past accomplishments.

What does that mean for Willingham going forward?
Well, we’ll get a front row seat as he laces them up in the AL Central to find out, but as much as there is obvious risk in giving a guy like Willingham a 3-year deal (based on Pouliat’s comparables for Cuddyer and the…um, fickle nature of OF who netted FA deals in the past), this is essentially how FA works. A team is going to overpay for the services of a player and while that player’s contract may outlive his usefulness to the team and, given where the Indians are with their current group of players (and this “window”) and the internal options that figure to see expanded roles if this is the end of the additions (save the token lottery tickets and NRI’s), wouldn’t it stand to reason that THIS was the appropriate time for the Indians to overpay for the services of a player?

Maybe that’s talking out of both sides of my mouth (pointing out regressions for players and how long-term FA deals haven’t worked out recently while saying the Indians should be taking this leap) and I’ve been advocating the trade market since the end of the season, but seeing as how there haven’t been compelling names that have moved in other deals (and…yes, I know that Yonder Alonso was traded to San Diego, just as I know that Cord Phelps had a better hitting line in the same AAA league as Alonso), shouldn’t the Indians have recognized this and been more aggressive on the FA market, pitfalls of said FA market (ahem…Jason Kubel’s 2-year deal) considered?

Apparently, there is a line of thinking that what’s out there now is really no better than the Indians’ internal options and namely that Shelley Duncan could play the role of “RH bat”, bouncing around between 1B and LF and providing some insurance for if/when Sizemore and/or Hafner spend some time on the shelf. Maybe that’s true if you’re talking about Coco Crisp or Juan Pierre…but if the idea is that what WAS out there (namely Willingham and Cuddyer) weren’t that much of an upgrade over those internal options (namely Duncan) to justify the risk that would have been assumed by giving either of those players, 3-year deal, I would point out that Shelley Duncan just turned 32 and (if you’ll remember from that Pouliat piece) if solid MLB bats turn into borderline regulars around the age of 32 or 33, what do borderline regulars become?

Let’s not forget what Shelley Duncan’s career line was from the start of his career in 2007 through September 2, 2011:
.234 BA / .308 OBP / .413 SLG / .721 OPS with 23 HR and 24 2B in 582 PA

Of course, we all know that Duncan went on a tear in those last 3 weeks of the season, posting a .981 OPS in his final 87 PA in 24 games, stroking 7 HR in those 24 games. But which player do you think is closer to the real Shelley Duncan…the one that posted a .721 OPS in 205 games to start his career or the one that posted a .981 OPS in his last 24 games of 2011?

Truthfully, Duncan’s career line up to that little hot streak in September isn’t all that dissimilar to what Matt LaPorta did in 2011 (.247 BA / .299 OBP / .412 OBP / .711 OPS), with LaPorta being a full 5 years younger than Duncan and people (present company included) can’t wait to move on from MaTola at 1B, so the idea that Duncan represents something on par with what was/is available on the FA market or via trade makes sense how?

Don’t take this to mean that Duncan is without value as he’s a RH bat that can be used (and here’s the key word) sporadically as a pinch-hitter or occasional starter against a tough LH starting pitcher. A role that is larger for him is akin to simply going back to the idea that LaPorta will become a player that he has not shown to be.

Is this to say that LaPorta is part of the answer for the Indians at 1B in 2012?
Absolutely not, as he’s destined for Columbus…and with good reason. Rather, it’s an attempt at providing some perspective on counting on Shelley Duncan to be any kind of platoon-mate or deserving of more than an occasional start or a stint as a PH for this 2012 team. Essentially, it’s a way to point out that if Duncan is part of a Plan A at 1B or Plan B in the OF if (when) Grady gets hurt…yeah, that’s bad planning on the part of the Indians as a fundamental failure to upgrade from even Shelley Duncan.

Maybe something more is coming or maybe the Indians have found a diamond-in-the-rough in Aaron Cunningham (or Thomas Neal) just as they did a number of years ago with SS Choo, seeing something that another (or in the case of Cunningham, multiple) team(s) did not and will be able to find a long-term solution to an OF that has issues in 2012 and beyond. That’s awfully hard to see with Cunningham’s body of work and regardless of that, if Cunningham (or Neal) does become a find for the Indians, it still doesn’t appreciably upgrade 1B. While I can see the merit in playing Santana more frequently at 1B (here is where The Axe Man ranks in wOBA among “1B” last year), it means that the Indians are going to be playing more of Lou Marson on an everyday basis (and here is where Marson ranked in wOBA among C last year), meaning that while the defense would certainly get a boost with Marson behind the plate, the offense would remain relatively unchanged, or maybe worse.

Ultimately, as Willingham then Cuddyer went off the board and the Indians stocked up on Cunningham and Pie (most notably), the sense that this is what the roster is going to look like on Opening Day began to creep in. While nobody of sound mind believes that Cunningham represented THE RH bat that was being targeted, his addition seemed to signal that they were starting to build depth around the current roster instead of letting parts of the current roster (namely Brantley and Duncan) morph into that depth. That’s a depressing thought as the organization went all in with the Ubaldo deal and while I don’t think that things are going to go screeching off of the cliff when the end of 2013 arrives, the idea that they’ll find that “RH bopper” in July of 2012 means that the lessons of 2006 (when the team was 10 ½ games back on Memorial Day after a promising 2005 season) or 2008 (when a team boasting CC and CP Lee was 11 ½ games back by the 4th of July after the ALCS appearance the year before) haven’t been learned.

In what seems to be the last “winnable” division in the AL (as the Rangers and Angels have become a new “Axis of Evil”), the Indians have the opportunity to take control of the AL Central and their failure to appreciably upgrade a lineup in need of upgrades could be remembered as an opportunity lost, as the inactivity of off-seasons in the past now are. To make those upgrades, the Indians may have to expose themselves to a level of risk that puts them outside of their comfort zone – much in the way that the Ubaldo trade did – but by taking little risk (other than the Grady Gamble), they’re setting themselves up for little reward. Don’t take that as a “JUST DO SOMETHING…ANYTHING” screed as the FA market is obviously flush with dumpsters in which money is deposited and some trade options that have been thrown out there look like Matt LaPorta with a different name, but essentially going into 2012 with the lineup that obviously had holes in 2011 seems risk-averse to the point of paralysis.

Maybe they’re counting on full and fully healthy years from the pieces in place, but if past truly is prologue, having some depth and having some legitimate options beyond what is currently in place should (continue to) be the focus of the off-season. Up to this point, the inability to make additions to the lineup or the decisions to not make certain additions to the lineup look short-sighted and could become regrettable in short order if and when injuries/regressions occur in 2012.

The off-season is far from over and (as I’ve been saying since the end of the season) trade avenues should be explored to the point that nearly no player should be excluded from trade discussions. Perhaps the idea that a bullpen arm could be flipped for something of impact value is further from reality (though Houston’s haul for Mark Melancon was compelling, with the Red Sox allegedly not done looking for relievers), but the Indians have taken risks and been creative on the trade market in the recent past, so the onus certainly seems to be back on that ability to find a hitter via trade before the team departs for Goodyear.

A failure to do so could be an organization-changing decision as the window that feels so recently opened could start shimmying down in a hurry…


Adam said...

Excellent column as usual Paul. I think the most frustrating part is that point that you made near the end of the column that this is the "last winnable division". I see it as essentially a two team race with us and the Tigers (with The White Sox financial troubles, Twins saddled with too many disappointing contracts, and the Royals being well, the Royals) and I'm sure management/ownership is acute enough to see it this way as well.

But this idea of stockpiling stiffs such as Lopez, LeRoche, and Cunningham just seems like more "Travis Bucks" as an attempt to guard against an avalanche of injuries (which fans can see already creeping up in the rear view mirror) by compiling semi-legit major leaguers, just as we did last year.

The only difference being that last year was evident to be a non-contending year and this year is clearly evident as a contending year. I guess the argument could be made that if nothing goes wrong and Grady stays healthy and logs 500 AB's that the lineup is potent enough to take us to the "top of the AL Central", but with so many players with extensive histories of injuries (Hafner, Sizemore, Choo) and with an obvious void in the lineup in terms of RH bat, it just seems like the "plane needs to land exactly right" for us to have a chance without making one or even two major moves.

Bric said...

Outstanding analysis.
Those OF deals are travesties.
Shelley Duncan had an outstanding year in the International League before coming to Cleveland, and has shown a lot of power potential. Give him an opportunity; if he hits 20-25 HR, he will, at the very least, be worth some quality young talent in a trade.
Hafner and Westbrook were good guys and fine players. Baseball is unpredictable, but those two deals were good ones to make. They just didn't work out, but you can't cry and quit making long-term commitments. A few will work out; more will not. But you have to try or nothing happens.